DUBAI: Bahrain sentenced the head of the country’s Shiite opposition movement to life in prison Sunday after convicting him of spying for rival Gulf state Qatar in a ruling rights groups called a travesty.
Sheikh Ali Salman, who headed the now-banned Al-Wefaq movement, and two of his aides had been acquitted by the high criminal court in June, a verdict the public prosecution appealed.
Sunday’s verdict can still be appealed.
The public prosecutor said in a statement that the three had been unanimously sentenced by the appeals court for “acts of hostility” against Bahrain and “communicating with Qatari officials… to overthrow constitutional order”.
Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, severed all ties with Qatar in 2017, banning their citizens from travel to or communication with the emirate over its alleged ties to both Iran and radical Islamist groups.
Ruled for more than two centuries by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, Bahrain has been hit by waves of unrest since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.
Opposition movements, both religious and secular, have been outlawed and hundreds of dissidents have been imprisoned — many of them stripped of their citizenship in the process.
Salman’s Al-Wefaq was dissolved by court order in 2016. Bahrain’s leftist opposition group, the National Democratic Action Society, or Waad, was banned in 2017 over allegations of links to terrorists.
Rights groups have said cases against activists in Bahrain — men and women, religious and secular — fail to meet the basic standards of fair trials.
Amnesty International criticised Sunday’s ruling against Salman and his aides, Hassan Sultan and Ali al-Aswad.
“This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.
“Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.”
Salman is currently serving a four-year sentence in a separate case — “inciting hatred” in the kingdom, which has seen mainly Shiite protests against the Sunni monarchy since 2011.
King Hamad has announced parliamentary elections on November 24 in Bahrain. Members of dissolved opposition parties, including Al-Wefaq and the secular Al-Waad group, are banned from running.
Bahrain last year ratified a constitutional amendment granting military courts the authority to try civilians charged with terrorism, a term that is loosely defined by the country’s penal code.
In June, Bahrain amended its law on political rights, prohibiting “leaders and members of political associations dissolved for violating the kingdom’s constitution or its laws” from running in legislative elections.
Bahrain, a key ally of the United States and home to the US Fifth Fleet, accuses Shiite Iran of provoking unrest in the kingdom.
Iran denies the allegations.
The United Nations and rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticised the Bahraini monarchy over its treatment of protesters.
Amnesty and HRW categorise Salman and other jailed opposition leaders prisoners of conscience.